Sunday, August 21, 2011

French Leave, by Anna Gavalda

If you happen to be sitting on a boat for a few hours in the middle of Lake Michigan on a gorgeous summer afternoon and you want something to read when the sun on the waves gets too bright for you, Anna Gavalda’s “French Leave” is perfect.

I’m speaking from experience (but you guessed that, right?). Marie’s review gave me the impetus to go look for Gavalda’s novella at a local library. Learning that it was just over 100 pages made it an easy choice for taking along on a family trip.

“French Leave” fit all of my personal requirements for our long weekend, which we’d planned to maximize reading and relaxation. It’s a light, fun story, engagingly written, for which I’m guessing Gavalda and her translator, Alison Anderson, deserve equal credit. (I’ll bet Emma could verify this, since she’s French herself.)

As you can learn from Marie’s and Emma’s reviews, it’s the story of a day in the life of four siblings in France. Three ditch a stuffy family wedding outside of Paris—and their wife/sister-in-law, portrayed as a sanctimonious, uptight prig—to visit the fourth, who’s working as a caretaker/guide of an historic chateau within driving distance. For twenty-four hours, they return to the days of their responsibility-free childhood. At the end of their sibling-bonding interlude, they all return to their separate lives with jobs, classes, kids, and/or a spouse or ex.

Like other good stories, Gavalda’s raised some questions for me. She told her story in the first person, from the point of view of Garance, one of the two sisters, who we learn in passing toward the end is a law student uncertain whether she's chosen the right course of study. I wondered how the other characters might tell the same story—especially Carine, the disliked sister-in-law (married to Simon).

The sense we get from Garance’s version is that she and her sibs are tight and have a terrific, easy-going, Edenic relationship, spoiled only by having to interact with the anal, ungenerous Carine, a pharmacist who constantly frets over germs and danger and won’t even bend the rules of her employment to get her new SILs some Guerlain at a discount. I liked Garance; she's irreverent and fun. Were Carine to tell the tale, though, I can imagine her venting frustration and resentment over her husband’s and his sibs’ codependent relationship in which none can break free of their childhoods, all enable each other to continue in ancient, unhealthy patterns learned from their dysfunctional parents, and all miss no opportunity to let any outsider, including a new or not-so-new in-law, know that she’ll never be One Of Them.

But that would be another story, and probably one I’d choose for some occasion other than a relaxing long weekend with my husband and daughter. If you have a weekend of R&R planned, “French Leave” would be a great takealong. After you finish it, see if you can find a good bistro or grocery that will sell you rillettes and a crusty baguette so you can picnic with your loved ones as Garance and her sibs do toward the book’s end. (Don’t forget the cornichons, unsalted butter, some good, grainy mustard, and a nice bottle of wine; some capers, olives, and a few walnuts wouldn’t go amiss, either.)